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THE NATION

Their 9/11 Response: Be Prepared

September 09, 2003|Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Kevin Clark is a second-generation cop, a street-tough police commander steeled in the cocaine wars of the South Bronx. Dan Hanfling is an Ivy League doctor. And Jim Schwartz spent his formative years answering fire alarms in suburbia.

Yet Clark, Hanfling and Schwartz have three things in common:

First, each was personally involved in responding to the terrorist attacks that struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Second, each believes deep in his heart that such attacks will happen again. "I come to work every single day thinking today is going to be the day," Schwartz said recently.

Third, since Sept. 11, each has played a front-line role in the grass-roots struggle to get ready for next time -- the nationwide effort to help local police, fire and emergency medical teams improve their readiness for new terrorist attacks or other mass catastrophes.

Working in the arena of first responders and local preparedness, they have seen the war on terrorism from the bottom up. And their experiences offer insight into why, despite measurable progress in many areas, the overall effort remains longer on plans and promises than on final results.

Clark, Hanfling and Schwartz, like local officials in towns and cities, state capitals and federal agencies across the country, have wrestled with tight budgets, red tape, politics and confusion -- all the while driven by their memories of Sept. 11.

Clark, now police commissioner in Baltimore, is a native New Yorker and commanded the 44th Precinct in the Bronx two years ago. "When the first tower actually collapsed," he said, "it was like somebody put a sword right into your heart."

Schwartz was directing rescue efforts and the firefighting after a fuel-laden airliner smashed into the Defense Department's massive headquarters. He had to order police and firefighters to form a cordon and physically restrain military personnel from rushing back into the building to search for comrades. Minutes later, a huge section of the structure collapsed into flaming rubble.

"Many of them suddenly faced the reality that if we hadn't given that order, they'd have been dead," Schwartz said.

Hanfling, as head of emergency management for the largest hospital system in Washington's Virginia suburbs, put emergency rooms on alert for the expected flood of trauma cases.

Hours later, as medical director of one of the first search and rescue teams to penetrate the Pentagon's shattered interior, he received the news that no one inside was likely to be alive. There was nothing left to do but tell his trauma teams to stand down.

Small wonder these three have played their roles since Sept. 11 with singular determination.

Life on the Street

If there are a million stories in the Naked City, as has been said of New York, then Kevin Clark probably heard the worst of them.

The son of a New York patrolman, Clark joined the force in 1981. He spent nine years in the South Bronx and three years in Spanish Harlem, "when the crack wars were in full effect."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Clark was driving to work across the George Washington Bridge and happened to glance downriver. To his astonishment, he saw the top of the trade center engulfed in a mushroom-shaped cloud.

When Clark called the NYPD operations center, a sergeant laconically informed him that they were sending a squad car to investigate. It was going to take more than that, Clark suggested.

At precinct headquarters, he said, "I told the radio dispatcher we weren't going to respond to anything except major crimes -- robberies, murders, serious things," Clark said. "We just assumed it was an all-out attack on any symbols or infrastructure."

Last fall, when he accepted Mayor Martin O'Malley's invitation to come to Baltimore, Clark brought with him his wife, five children and two decades of experience fighting the drugs and violent crime that were ravaging Maryland's largest city.

He also brought a commitment to homeland security.

Supported by O'Malley, who has taken an aggressive stance on readiness, Clark has pushed hard for better equipment and organization. "It's a new world since 9/11, and police and fire and other first responders need new equipment like this," he said recently when the city announced that all 3,350 of its police officers would get biochemical masks and protective suits.

Such gains have been hard-won, however, and the police commissioner's frustration sometimes boils over.

"We're not prepared, whether people want to believe it or not," he said. "But everybody is playing politics, and it's with people's lives."

Part of the problem is that Baltimore, though it shows signs of revival after years of stagnation, is an old city with too many needs and too few resources.

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